Judy Feld Carr: The rescue of Syrian Jews

There are many stories about the treatment of Jews in Arab lands that are not reported. Instead we are inundated with stories about Palestinians that often turn out not to be true.

This is the heroic story of Canadian, Judy Feld Carr, a woman of valour, who, for 28 years, quietly rescued thousands of Syrian Jews. Her story was revealed before the age of widespread use of social media. It needs to be retold over and over. It is written up in a 1999 book by University of Toronto Prof. Harold Troper:  The Remarkable Story of One Woman’s Role in the Rescue of Syrian Jewry. It was republished in 2007 under the title: The Rescuer: The Amazing True Story of How One Woman Helped Save the Jews of Syria.

In 2011 Israel Broadcasting Authority Channel 1 made a documentary about her work titled, “Miss Judy” which was shown at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in 2012.

Her story of bravery is another example of honouring the Jewish vow, “Never Again.”

Between 1975 and September 11, 2001, Judy Feld Carr, wife, mother, bubbie, born in Montreal, raised in Sudbury Ontario and now living in Toronto, rescued 3,228 Jews out of a population of 4,500 from Syria. She and her husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, had read about twelve young Jews whose bodies had been mutilated when they’d stepped on a minefield while trying to escape from Qamishli, Syria.

Their clandestine activities began by reaching out with the offer of books for the Syrian Jewish community in 1972. Just as the two were getting more deeply involved, Ronald died from a heart attack leaving Judy alone at 33. She didn’t quit. Her first success was arranging for an elderly and sick Aleppo rabbi to come Toronto for cancer treatment in 1977.

Jews had been living in Syria since Biblical times and in Aleppo since the 4th century when the synagogue Kanisat Mutakal was built. There were more than 10,000 Jews in Aleppo for most of the Ottoman Empire. When Syria obtained her independence from France in 1946, the Jews and their property were attacked and then came the pogroms.

Prior to 1947 there were 30,000 Jews in three districts within Syria. In 1947 the Jews of Aleppo were attacked, synagogues burned and 6000 Jews fled, their property taken over by  Muslims. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 the lives of the Jews in Syria deteriorated even further. Laws reminiscent of Nuremburg were established. Jews needed a permit to travel more than 3 kilometres. They were forced into ghettos. There were restrictions on education and business. Any Jew trying to escape was often tortured and killed. By 1967 there were 1500 Jews in Aleppo of the 4500 in Syria.

Judy quietly raised money through word of mouth and in 1973 established the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands in the name of her late husband at their Conservative synagogue, Beth Tzedec, in Toronto. In 1977 she married Donald Carr who joined her in her mission. Money raised paid for bribes, airline tickets, and Syrian secret police. She arranged for people to be smuggled across the border into Turkey and then on to Israel. Difficult and dangerous for all. “We were buying Jews, one by one, from a hostile government. It was the best-kept secret in the Jewish world.”

And she negotiated fees because different people required different bribes: One price for an elderly man, another for a single woman and then what was a pregnant woman worth. There were times when families were forced to separate. All of this sounds so much like Germany in the Hitler era.

When one of the presidents of Israel was approached by a young man in the Israel Air Force asking him for help to get his family out of Syria the president’s secretary called Judy in Toronto. “That’s how I came to get his family out, part as a result of an escape and part by ransoming. It was the most difficult thing. First they had to find me. They never saw me; I was the voice on the telephone, and they had to trust what I was going to do.”

She came to be known as “Gin” by those who were rescued because of the code that was used to communicate. It was based on Chinese cuisine and alcohol.  She was also known as “the woman from Canada.”

Many Syrian Jewish girls carry the name Judy. They carry a proud name, of a Biblical woman who helped to save the Jewish people.

In the 1990’s hope for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East opened the door for Jewish emigrants. But not for free. Passports and visas still came at a price. And Judy and Donald continued to raise funds to purchase freedom.

In 1995 the late Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin wrote of Judy: “Very few people, if any have contributed as greatly as you have.”  Judy received the Order of Canada in 2001 when her activities were finally revealed.

I remember seeing her at an event, just after her work was made public. She didn’t look like a super hero. That she was able to keep her activities a secret in the Jewish community is heroic!  She teaches us that anyone can be a hero. It requires great courage of one’s convictions. That comes from a moral compass. Her moral compass is Judaism, ethical monotheism and its teachings of social justice and prophetic law. We must never lose touch with these teachings.

The last Syrian Jew was rescued September 11, 2001. That fateful day when the rest of the world was dramatically introduced to hatred, hatred the Jews have known for more than 2000 years.

About the Author
Diane Weber Bederman is a multi-faith, hospital trained chaplain who lives in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto; She has a background in science and the humanities and writes about religion in the public square and mental illness on her blog: The Middle Ground:The Agora of the 21st Century. She is a regular contributor to Convivium: Faith in our Community. "